Cloud based phone system app
Illustration by Ilya Lestov

Twenty years ago, I was standing on a loading dock directing the two trucks transporting our new ACD phone system into the building. Ours was an 800-seat center—so, 400 seats per truck, for those of you who are mathematically inclined.

Yesterday, I went out to the app store and downloaded an ACD—the entire 800-seat phone system, not just a mobile extension to a system—for $2.99 a month.

OK, that last part is a lie. But it is not that big a lie (except, of course, for the price). While we are not quite at the point where you can snap your fingers and install a phone switch, we are surprisingly close. Phone systems have gone through a complete transformation in the last 15 to 20 years, and those changes cannot be ignored, regardless of where you stand on innovation.

Surprisingly, the smallest impact has been with the feature set. Many of the most used and liked features of today are pretty similar to what was available yesterday. It is everything surrounding those features—where the system resides, how calls are transported, how you pay for the equipment, who sells it—that has changed drastically. At the center of it all is “the cloud”—that mysterious place where everything is supposed to reside but no one seems able to define.

Technical staff has a lot of clarity on what has changed, and many of them can (and do!) speak for hours on the topic. For business leaders, it is more difficult to discern why this new world is worth exploring. Many businesses have already made the leap, but if you are at that point where you can’t put a finger on why a hosted or cloud-based phone system is worth considering, the rest of this article will focus on four things you need to know about this new landscape.

1. Try Before You Buy

Let’s face it—when you are buying something that is delivered via multiple truckloads, you are investing a lot of money and are not going to get rid of it anytime soon. That fully explains why the ACD selection process of past years was so methodical and time-consuming. Any mistake you made would haunt you for years to come.

Many of today’s organizations still maintain the same painstaking approach to system selection, and in some cases, that may be appropriate. But there is another option in a cloud-based environment that can be considered: the “try before you buy” approach. Replace the exhaustive evaluation process with a streamlined analysis, choose the best option and “give it a spin” before a full commitment. Some vendors, in fact, encourage this with contract terms as short as 30 days.

How would it work? Ideally, you would have a separate phone number directing traffic to a smaller group of people. Moving this team to a cloud-based system lets you experience it firsthand. Real-life testing can take place, and you will learn far more from this approach than you ever could in presales evaluations. And while this is going on, the old system would be serving the remainder of your team, and would lay dormant on the desks of the test group. Hate the new system? Port the phone number back and reconnect with the old system. Love the new technology? Get everyone else on board. Odds are the whole process will be quicker than it was when you had to do the full upfront analysis.

2. Popularity That Can’t Be Ignored

Some of today’s most popular ACD phone systems are offered only as a hosted or cloud-based system. Those still selling traditional premise-based systems all have cloud options, and many of them are reporting that sales of premise-based systems have dipped below 50%. This trend has been going on for a while, and it seems unlikely to change.

But maybe you are devoted to premise-based, traditional phone systems, and maybe you have great reasons for this. Does the fact that so many others are jumping to hosted and cloud solutions matter to you? Well, yes, it should. We all know what happens when one product is on its way out in favor of a newer version. That older system often gets ignored in terms of investment and updates. And in this case, it is important to note that the revenue associated with those old systems has largely been realized, unlike the newer systems and their monthly license fees.

Business leaders need to realize that if the rush to the cloud continues, the attention paid to premise-based systems by vendors will decrease proportionately. It may get to a point where what is “right” or “best” will no longer matter. If it isn’t popular, it won’t generate revenue; and if it doesn’t produce, it will go the way of the dinosaur. Does this mean you have to put your ACD on eBay and jump to the cloud tomorrow? No, but it does mean that you have to be prepared to make that type of move before obsolescence forces it.

3. Transport Is Tricky

Despite what your cloud-based vendor may tell you, transporting calls in a cloud-based environment is tricky business. It’s a world loaded with concerns about codecs, QoS, MPLS and other terms and acronyms that are really just shorthand for “headache.” Your vendor might make it easy and take on many or all of those headaches for you (for a nice fee, of course). But just because they are off your plate does not mean they have disappeared.

If you have only used premise-based equipment in the past, you may not have the skills you need on staff to avoid the problems or ask the right questions. This is not an area where you want to take chances. If you don’t have the expertise, you need to get it, either via hiring or from an outside consultant. Problems related to transport can make an otherwise excellent system perform so poorly you will yearn for the days of rotary phones.

4. Built for Self-Help

Isn’t everything today built to encourage self-help? When it is well designed, that’s a positive move. Basic transactions on the better hosted/cloud-based phone systems are easier to complete yourself than it would be to send a help desk ticket through a portal. That’s a benefit for everyone.

The more complex issues, however, are a different matter. When you have a complex problem and you know a solution exists, you will certainly be able to tap into the vendor’s expertise for help. How will you know, though, when a more advanced solution applies? If your internal staff only knows the basics, how will they know there is a technical solution to the business problem you have? You run the risk of falling into that chasm where the people who can define the problem don’t know about the potential solution, and the people who are experts with the solution do not know about the problem.

As a business leader, you will likely have to accept that you will need internal staff to do some of the more basic administrative work. You can then consider getting them trained and certified in more advanced areas of the application in order to avoid that chasm. That means the cost savings associated with support may not be as large as advertised.

The Message Is Clear

The considerations related to cloud-based phone systems are far more numerous than the four discussed here. Taken together, though, they form a clear message—the new world order is here to stay, and it takes some effort to make sure that you make the most of it. If you haven’t taken the plunge yet, your time is coming soon!